by Max Schulz



Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question Frequencies

Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question X-tabs





In January 1969, a natural gas blowout on an oil rig miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, spilled 80,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean and onto surrounding beaches. Twenty years later, in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef and spilled 10.4 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, affecting 1,300 miles of shoreline.

These two great oil spills are perhaps the principal sources of public antipathy toward offshore drilling for natural resources. Images of spilled oil bubbling to the ocean’s surface and covering birds and other wildlife have firmly cemented in much of the public mind that offshore drilling is dangerous, that it inflicts tremendous environmental harm, and that its costs are not worth its benefits. Thus the means by which the U.S. obtains about 25 percent of the nation’s natural gas production and about 24 percent of its oil production[102] have become, understandably, linked to environmental degradation.
A majority (64.4 percent) of respondents favored expanded offshore oil drilling, while 31.8 percent opposed it. Over 42 percent of those who opposed it believed that the U.S. already uses too much oil. Interestingly, even smaller percentages of those who opposed expanded drilling cited concerns that offshore drilling is the major cause of oil spills into the ocean (17.5 percent) or that oil rigs damage the environment (26.6 percent). Perhaps many are aware of offshore drilling’s successful track record.

Since 1975, offshore drilling in the Exclusive Economic Zone (within 200 miles of U.S. coasts) has a safety record of 99.999 percent, meaning that only 0.0001 percent of the oil produced has been spilled.[103] With regard to the Outer Continental Shelf (U.S. waters under federal, rather than state, jurisdiction),[104] between 1993 and 2007 there were 651 oil spills, releasing 47,800 barrels of oil. Given 7.5 billion barrels of oil produced during that period, one barrel of oil has been spilled in the OCS per 156,900 barrels produced.[105]

Research published in 2000 by the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS)[106] documents the decreasing occurrence of crude-oil spills in the OCS. Revising previous estimates first published in 1994, the authors analyzed data through 1999 and concluded that oil-spill rates for OCS platforms, tankers, and barges continued to decline.[107] Additionally, the number of oil spills from platforms, tankers, and pipelines is small, relative to the amount of oil extracted and transported. Even so, oil spills remain an unpleasant reality of offshore oil drilling. Certainly, any amount of oil spilled into the ocean is undesirable, but offshore oil operations contribute relatively little of the oil that enters ocean waters each year.

For example, ocean floors naturally seep more oil into the ocean than do oil-drilling accidents and oil-tanker spills combined. (However, such seepage generally does not rise to the surface or reach the coastlines and, thus, is not as apparent as oil-drilling spills.) According to the National Academies’ National Research Council, natural processes are responsible for over 60 percent of the petroleum that enters North American ocean waters and over 45 percent of the petroleum that enters ocean waters worldwide.[108] Thus, in percentage terms, North America’s oil-drilling activities spill less oil into the ocean than the global average, suggesting that our drilling is comparatively safe for the environment.

Ironically, research shows that drilling can actually reduce natural seepage, as it relieves the pressure that drives oil and gas up from ocean floors and into ocean waters. In 1999, two peer-reviewed studies found that natural seepage in the northern Santa Barbara Channel was significantly reduced by oil production. The researchers documented that natural seepage declined 50 percent around Platform Holly over a twenty-two-year period, concluding that, as oil was pumped from the reservoir, the pressure that drives natural seepage dropped.[109]

Offshore oil drilling is carefully monitored for environmental safety. Using state-of-the-art technology and employing a range of procedural safeguards, U.S. offshore drilling has a track record of minimal environmental impact. Modern oil drilling is even designed to withstand hurricanes and tropical storms. According to the MMS, 3,050 of the Gulf of Mexico’s 4,000 platforms and 22,000 of the 33,000 miles of the Gulf’s pipelines were in the direct path of either Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita. The hurricanes destroyed 115 drilling platforms, damaged 52 others, and damaged 535 pipeline segments, yet “there was no loss of life and no major oil spills attributed to either storm.”[110]

All forms of energy production come with risks, both to humans and to the environment. Offshore oil drilling is no exception. Spills from offshore drilling and tankers undoubtedly will continue to occur, but they are rare and are decreasing in frequency; and the amount of oil spilled from rigs and tankers is small, compared with the amount of oil extracted and with the amount of oil that enters ocean waters naturally from ocean floors. As technology continues to advance, and as companies find themselves accountable to a public increasingly concerned about environmental stewardship, drilling for oil in our coastal waters will continue to be conducted in a safe and environmentally conscious manner.

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